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Editor's Note: The following research report is provided by Dr. Roberts for the benefit of those who might find it interesting. Please do not reproduce any of this report without the express permission of the author.

Christian Theological Seminary
D. Bruce Roberts, Director

Purpose and Rationale
Many of the old “mainline” Protestant churches are experiencing serious declining membership in once vital congregations. Some observers of this situation agree with Loren Mead, founder and past President of the Alban Institute, that there is some urgency for old national and regional organizations to reverse the current flow of resources (THE ONCE AND FUTURE CHURCH, Alban Institute, 1991, p. 55).

Mead suggests that national and regional judicatories “must have the tools and the flexibility to get resources to the congregations in the thick of the mission when there are challenges, opportunities, or breakdowns” (p. 59). A primary question for church leaders in our time is how to effectively deliver resources to the congregations that are in such obvious need.

Continuing education has been one of the ways judicatories, seminaries, and independent centers have attempted to assist congregations and church leaders. However, there are problems. Continuing education for ministry continues to be at a real disadvantage in the church’s educational ecology. It is still not a part of the top educational priorities of most seminaries, denominations, judicatories, or local churches. In fact, its importance has been slipping in recent years. For example, twenty years ago almost every mainline Protestant denomination in this country had a full-time staff person with the portfolio of continuing education for ministry at the national level. There is now only one (ELCA)!

An examination of the current continuing education offerings of many seminaries and independent centers indicates that programs are becoming shorter and shorter. Three years ago, the norm in several places was five days in length. Today, most programs are limited to forty-eight hours or shorter. The length of a program does not guarantee in and of itself that anybody learns anything. However, continuing education that has a sustained educational thrust over time does allow a greater possibility for this happening. There are all kinds of pressures operating to bring about shorter programs: quick fix mentality, less support by judicatories and congregations to engage in long-term education, lack of recognition and rewards, etc.

The lone ranger image for ongoing education of clergy dominates. A pastor comes on his or her own to a program for one or two days and returns to home base, possibly, to make a difference in the practice of ministry. There is almost no accountability and usually little evidence to suggest anything happens. Congregations usually don’t know what the pastor has been up to and see little benefit for them or the pastor.

Generally speaking, most continuing theological education is planned and offered by everyone except the participants. Delivery systems usually mean people come to the centers for relatively short periods of time to participate in programs sponsored and publicized by the host institution. It is the exception to the rule when representatives of the constituency to be served are involved in the planning process of a particular program that is to be offered or that what is offered reflects a critical analysis of the situation in which pastors are engaged in congregational ministry. Most likely, this does not happen because nobody wants to pay for the staff time to do it and the planning process itself is not seen as educational. However, it is probably the major reason why programs are cancelled.

A Peer Group Model

It is in this context that we have, assisted by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., developed a different approach to assisting congregations and to delivering continuing theological education to clergy in the state of Indiana. It is a clergy peer group study program that involves seven to eight persons meeting over an extended period of time focusing primarily on leadership in congregational life. A study of the peer group program of the Methodist Educational Leave Society of Alabama clearly documents the success of this approach and critical factors that are involved: self-selection, trained leadership, development of a three year study plan with goals and objectives, built in accountability, support from church and family, and recognition.

The purpose of the Indiana Clergy Peer Group Study Program (PGSP) is to provide leadership consultation and to furnish resources for local congregations through the formation of clergy peer groups that focus on leadership in ministry. Clergy develop learning plans for a three-year period that involve developing learning objectives, study, experimentation in their congregations, assessment of results, and creation of new objectives from the experience of learning in practice. Peer groups meet regularly for worship, planning, study, reporting on congregational experiments, and identification of new learnings and directions in ministry. Meetings involve pastors in theological reflection, communal planning processes, shared leadership, travel, and peer reflection.

The PGSP peer group model utilizes specially selected and trained Learning Consultant/Facilitators (LCF) who are responsible for helping peer groups identify learning needs, develop learning objectives, discover and utilize resources appropriate to identified learning objectives, carry out learning activities in an attitude of experimentation and anticipation of new learning, engage in theological reflection, and gather feedback for evaluation of results. Each evaluation is expected to lead to new and more exciting learning objectives for the participants. The peer groups monitor each member’s experiments in ministry so that there is both direct learning and learning by association with others. The LCFs and the group are responsible for attending to learning--not on whether a particular idea or initiative “worked.” The groups are focused upon what is learned; it is a “no failure” norm, that is, the emphasis is upon what can be learned not on whether there was a failure or success. A “no failure” atmosphere sponsors creativity and experimentation by fostering what Parker Palmer calls open space: “creating space in which the community of truth can be practiced” (THE COURAGE TO TEACH, Jossey-Bass, 1998, p.132).


Current Status

In late November 2002, PGSP reached capacity with fourteen peer groups, all with assigned LCFs and eight with approved proposals, involving 105 pastors and over 100 congregations in Indiana. As of September 2003, ten groups have approved proposals, four groups are working on proposal revisions, and two groups have completed the three-year study.

We have been working with an external evaluator provided by Lilly Endowment, Inc. to learn what impact the project has had on the pastors and the congregations. Although it is still too early to draw any conclusions, we do have some idiosyncratic evidence that the peer groups are making a difference. For example, a participant in one of the earliest groups, a group that has struggled with several conflicts, recently responded to the question on our Every Meeting Feedback Form: “From what you have experienced, what are you going to tell others or use in the life of the congregation between now and the next meeting?”

The participant wrote: “That community is worth the effort to build! Eight individuals who, in many ways are very different, can develop trust, affection, and a common purpose. We are a microcosm of life in the church as I believe Jesus intends it to be.”

The first peer group, from the Evansville area, completed their three year project in June. We have some of the final evaluations on hand from the peer group members, and we have been working with our external evaluator to collect responses from congregational representatives. I will try to give a flavor of the responses from participants. All members have reported that the experiences were transformative for them personally. One member said it this way: “Most of the experiences we’ve had will be with me for the rest of my ministry, as well as my life. It has deepened my sense of commitment to doing everything we can to minister to those in need."

Six of the seven mentioned their trip to Mexico City as particularly moving. Here is what two persons said about it:

“We had an opportunity to meet and talk to some of the women and children in ‘Cartonlandia’ while in Mexico City. At the close of our time we gathered in a circle for prayer. It was as sacred a time as I have experienced. I was deeply moved by the incredible faith of these folks who had so little materially, but yet were incredibly rich spiritually. Despite the many ways we’re different, there was a deep sense of oneness as the people of God. The vision of us all gathered there is forever etched in my mind.”

"It would be hard for anyone on that trip to not come back home transformed. I witnessed poverty like I had never seen before. Yet in the midst of that, I witnessed hope that transcends the circumstances. The positive effect for me is that I have a greater appreciation for the blessings I have, as well as how some of our country’s practices affect other nations.”

Five of the seven also mentioned a trip to Oregon to meet with a retreat leader and therapist on family systems leadership as particularly moving and helpful. In response to a question about how participation made a difference in congregations, the participants had different but similar answers. Several mentioned that they were more confident and mature in their leadership, one stated that the peer group support made it possible to stay in the congregation through conflict that led to change, and another reflected on a changed leadership style toward partnership in ministry with the congregation. All reflected on the power of the support in the group and the necessity of finding that kind of help in the future.

Responses from the first group to finish indicate that the participants found support, challenge, and renewal. Since we have not yet received data from congregational representatives, it is too soon to know whether the congregations served by the first peer group pastors have also experienced an increase in energy and vitalization. As the data are compiled, you will be hearing more about our findings.

Editors Note: Please do not reproduce the information in this article without the author's express permission. Many thanks to Dr. Roberts for providing this research report.